If you have won an award or recognition of any sort over the past four decades, chances are it came from Alderson’s Awards West – Printwares. In a way, they are recording Lewis County history. From 4-H and basketball champions to hall of fame inductees, businesses of the month and even birthdays, Alderson’s Awards West-Printwares records the moment in a way that lasts for generations, just as they have.
If you are from around here, than you may remember William’s Jewelry. It was located in the old YardBirds mall in the 70s. That is where our story begins. The jewelry shop was owned by Harry and Ann Williams. Because they were jewelers, they had an engraving machine. In fact, they were really the only business to have one back then. Their daughter, Linda, went to Centralia High School and would spend time at the engraving machine after school, helping out the family business. After graduating, she married Ralph Peel in 1965, a graduate of Onalaska High.
“There wasn’t any trophy businesses at that time except mail order ones,” recalls Ralph. “My father-in-law was a great bowler and golfer and had lots of trouble finding awards, so he set up a little trophy display inside William’s Jewelry. I kind of married into the business really.”
Business took off. They were doing so well that Linda’s two brothers, Kent and Mark, decided to go to Billings, Montana and start their own trophy business, as Lewis County wasn’t the only place lacking an award store. Ralph recalls that back then there were none from Seattle to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Again, business took off. “I was attending Centralia College when Kent called me and asked if we would come and help them open a bunch of new stores in Montana,” shares Ralph. “So we went over in 1969 and I traveled four states doing outside sales.”
Eventually, Kent would rename their business Montana Silversmith, which is still in business today.
Meanwhile, Ralph and Linda went back to help her parents who were ready to retire in 1971. The couple bought the trophy inventory and decided to open their own trophy store in Lewis County. In January of 1972, Ralph’s Trophies opened at 602 N Tower in Centralia. “Rent was $125 a month and we had $300 – $400 in trophies, and that’s what we opened with,” he recalls.
The business grew, slowly but surely. “I remember going clear out to Hoquiam and Aberdeen to sell trophies to the high schools,” he says. “And celebrating when I got Pe Ell, my first big order.”
Ralph and Linda ran the shop successfully out that location for ten years, until 1981 when they decided to sell to Pat and Sherry Swanson, who Linda had known since high school. Previously, Pat spent seven years driving for UPS. “The advantage was that I got to see the inside of literally every business,” he says. “I delivered to Ralph’s Trophies a few times a week for years. I thought the awards business looked fun and had a lot of things I like, including hands-on manufacturing of the awards and an upbeat atmosphere. Everybody who came in was happy, they were celebrating something.”
Again, the business just continued to grow, but that didn’t mean there were no challenges. “The 602 N Tower location had floor drains and during those big floods, water came up out of those drains into the store,” recalls Pat. But one of the biggest challenges was growth itself. “We were very blessed. But a growing business takes money, you really don’t start making money until you quit growing.”
That growth spurred Pat to take on a business partner, Tom and Karen Alderson in January of 1986. Tom was also no stranger to the store. His father had been Ralph’s accountant for the trophy shop all those years and would continue to help Tom when he ran it.
It was around this same time that they began to add other services to their products, including screen printing and embroidery. They no longer just engraved trophies. It was time for a change.
With Tom and Karen as business partners, they moved into a bigger space at 1124 Kresky Ave in Centralia in 1987.
The bigger space meant more growth. About a year later, Voetbergs expanded the building, adding three retail spaces. “We jumped at the opportunity to occupy one of those spaces and we created the “Printwares” division, dedicated mostly to screen printing and embroidery. Shortly, we expanded again into the second retail space, making it our production area for screen printing,” Tom explains. “The Voetberg family owned the land and leased the building to us, allowing us to exercise a purchase option. They were really good to us and I credit them with helping in our ability to sustain our business.”
In the beginning, the screen print shop was upstairs and the main show room was half what it is today. As they grew, they continued to squeeze things in. “I remember when I had a single needle embroidery machine in the area that connects the two buildings,” Tom shares. “I would put movies in and my kids would watch movies while I ran the embroidery machine. One machine with just six needles meant lots of stopping for color changes. Forty-eight hats could take most of a weekend.”
Over the years, they have continued to expand, including a big remodel in 1997, two years after Tom and Karen bought out Pat and Sherry’s shares, becoming sole owners of Alderson’s Awards West-Printwares.
Why have they been so successful? Every owner, whether it was the Peels, Swansons or Aldersons, have shown a sincere interest in and caring for their customers. Pat believed firmly in a symbiotic relationship, where both business and customer win. Agreeing, Tom also believes that meeting customers’ needs is not solely defined by a set of products and services. “Our ability to adapt and change our business to meet the changing expectations and needs of our customers is paramount,” he relates. Putting the customer first is what helped make this great company a lasting part of Lewis County and beyond.
To learn more, visit the Alderson’s Awards West website.